London — The setting of the hosting environment, Frieze London, is relatively easy to annotate. As in all fairs, it shows a portion of the cogs of a market, historically consolidated, that works with commodities and apprehends artworks as financial assets, in the literal sense of the word: Works are purchased as investments and attached to strings of variables that, with time, may boost or deflate their economic value.
This doesn’t make the fair a hostile environment. Yet the press-pass holder, covering one of the public events, knows that the extensive infrastructure of booths, exhibition spaces, sculpture garden, info points, free wi-fi wiring, press packs, restaurants and toilets, is there for her, just in a very oblique way. The structurally capitalistic logic of it is so self-evident and justified that it deflates any impetus for a rational critical assault. Which means that irrational approaches are the ones to pursue.
Adventures in the Field: The Anthropological Turn was one of this year’s public events. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, who used the expression “anthropological turn” in a recent text for Frieze magazine, chaired the panel discussion. The speakers were Iman Issa (artist), Naeem Mohaiemen (artist and anthropology PhD student) and Dieter Roelstraete (curator of the show The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago earlier this year, which looked at the alliances between archaeology and artistic practice).
Due to a strange conjunction, I happened to attend a workshop on post-humanities during the same week. Parts of which I heard not many hours before the discussion spilled over it.
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In her Frieze text, Wilson-Goldie lists a number of artists who have shown critical interest in the “tools and methods of anthropology, and in the discipline’s ability to discover the world and organize knowledge.” She points toward several artistic practices that converge with anthropology and archaeological, historical and archival research. The art mentioned varies significantly and, more than a straight-out interest in a discipline, the common trait is a methodological borrowing.
While introducing the panel discussion, she mentioned a new attention to objects as bearers of stories and of a social function, seen in their relation to human groups, and to artworks carrying the curiosity for encounters with these groups. She used the expression: “trigger for wonders.”
Naeem Mohaiemen spoke about his interest in a discipline that, having to justify itself over and over, always admits the possibility for a traitor or rebel to survive in its cohort. Anthropology lives in a status of disciplinary chaos and partial self-hate.
The stories Mohaiemen digs up are marginal, as in many artistic practices that look into archives and history. His ethnographic research, for instance in The Young Man Was (a project begun in 2009 and divided in chapters, each in a different medium: journal essay, performance, installation, collage, video wall, photography and film),is based on the account of figures who lived on the fringes of an event, not the leaders but the attendants of a certain assembly or protest, the ones nobody else would search for and interview. In many cases — as Mohaiemen explained — these are the only survivors, for their lower profile spared them, also making their memories less compromised and more expansive. The artist treats the artefact or original record of an event, the mythical object of search for much anthropological work, as something that is needed as the completion of a story, but that does not actually exist.
Iman Issa said her relationship with objects is not negotiated with any practice other than the one of inventing forms. She establishes special rules for herself to make new objects. These are usually associated with processes of remembering and attempts to put viewers’ personal memories in communication with each other via something that is familiar and can activate a collective fantasy. In her Common Elements (2013), she worked with a selection of biographies. She isolated parts of text in which the personal dimension connects with shared experiences. These were then displayed together with objects produced after the artist’s explorations in museums that collect furnishings of different kinds (photographs, idols, statues, artefacts).
Indeed, Issa’s relationship with objects has little to do with what they represent for one human group or in the context of a certain history. To the contrary: objects become hooks for deep memories — converging from multiple settings, places, times and people — to hold on to and begin their own conversation without sharing the same exact referent.
Roelstraete’s Way of the Shovel show grew out of the curator’s eponymous 2009 e-flux essay. The first line is a quote by Walter Benjamin: “He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” Roelstraete mentioned that recent practices using historical research may be the symptom of a “need to go back” and excavate the past. At the end of his e-flux essay, this idea is formulated more as a concern: Looking at the past is something that we do because we can’t look at the present, set aside “excavate the future.”
This did raise a bit of controversy among the speakers, who did not quite agree on the reasons why art “looks back” or “goes back” and digs. Mohaiemen responded that the past, in these cases, is not a refuge, but another way to articulate the present. Issa spoke about the practice of producing furnishings and statues in more ancient cultures as projective speculations and wishes for the future.
At this point, when the talk was well into its course, the insinuated nostalgia for the past and lack of projective traction towards the future almost transfigured into nostalgia for a form of progressive humanism and its expectations around art. I wonder whether that expectation is precisely what makes us lose sight of the “triggers for wonders.” Perhaps what artistic practices have done, intentionally or not, is think up more expansive descriptions of what anthropological and historical research could be in a post-humanist context.
The environment surrounding the talk then became all the more relevant and not simply as a counter-actor, but as one of the elements of the odd Frieze ecology. In it, artworks exist and circulate in a plethora of ways. Works that you have seen in a gallery, at a curated show, in a museum, you see again, in a white booth, next to other works you never saw before, possibly about to be bought and inserted into the chains of calculations mentioned above.
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For some, re-locating an object or document within the history of the community that produced it could make it less of a financial asset, move it slightly further away from an openly capitalist application and, in a sense, make it part of a more humanist, and so progressive existence. Or perhaps not. In any case, this type of endeavor is familiar, so in the closing space of this bit of writing I might try to do something else.
One thing that Frieze does quite efficiently is encapsulate disparate elements and hold them together in its logic of art-world-encompassing magazine/fair. Now, we could re-arrange its parts in different ways and try to use Frieze as our trigger for wonders. All elements ideally coordinate with each other and put their relations at use. Borrowing from an ecological approach, we could try to observe these parts as they come together, at their microscopic points of conjunction, where they are supposed to operate together, but where they could also be destabilized. We do this mainly to try and figure out how to re-wire those relations and conjure up the parts in a way entirely different from what they were originally organized for.
This is just an attempt. Borrowing from another consolidated practice, the Borgesian method for building monstrous lists, we could write down: the financial and economic, the pleasure with form, the discursive engagement, the curated projects, the large properties of West London, the glass sinks in the portable toilets, the curiosity of many artists/tourists, the after parties, the grudging high eye-brow of the independent London art scene.
The more we amplify the closeness of these disparate parts, the more we sense the aesthetics of a changing object that has as its bio-product an incompressible noise. We can almost feel the gaps among the elements. Standing over them induces a vertigo effect. By no means does this provide a political strategy, for the moment, but the rattling oddity remains and so does the leak of unexpected information.